Counting crows: MV residents puzzled by abundance of black birds

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
An increase in the crow population in Mountain View is logical, according to avian experts, because the birds are already beginning to migrate to warmer climates before winter hits.

In the evenings, just before dusk, Zoe Blatchley sits in her Mountain View backyard and gazes skyward. Then she commences her tally.

A bunch of 10. A bunch of 20. A bunch of five.

“There will be some groups that are more dense than others, but it goes on for at least five, 10 minutes where it’s this steady stream of them,” she said.

In the month or so since Blatchley began counting crows, she’s heard just one squawk; her subjects are silent save for the flapping of their wings. But the birds aren’t always so quiet, and it’s their raucous behavior and seemingly sudden convergence on certain downtown neighborhoods that has some Mountain View residents cawing. A post questioning “an abnormal amount of crows and crow activity” near Castro Street garnered more than 20 responses by last week, some, inevitably, comparing the spectacle to “The Birds,” Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1963 film.

Cypress Point Drive, sandwiched between Moffett Boulevard and Highway 85, appears to be a particularly popular roosting spot. Soaring redwood trees shade the dead-end street, and their lofty branches attract hundreds of crows each evening. The birds croak their nasally calls at each other and at pedestrians strolling by. Sometimes they leave presents on automobiles parked in their territory.

Robert Rich, who lives approximately a half-mile away from Cypress Point Drive, frequently walks in the area and knows the feathered residents of that street well. He believes the birds know him, too; as famously proven by University of Washington wildlife biologist John Marzluff, crows can recognize individual human faces.

Rich said his personal research and observation of crows has brought him to revere the birds and appreciate their presence.

“It makes it a little less scary when you understand a little about what’s going on. It sort of ameliorates a little bit of that stereotype that Hitchcock did so much to instill,” Rich said. “There’s nothing to fear. They’re just really smart, really social, slightly obnoxious birds.”

What’s going on

The avian interlopers observed in Mountain View are of the American crow, or Corvus brachyrhynchos, species, according to Matthew Dodder, a lifelong birder and instructor of the Palo Alto Adult School’s Advanced Birding class. Crows belong to a larger family of birds called the corvids, which includes magpies, jays and ravens.

“The corvids, especially crows, are really very intelligent, and the crows especially are extremely social,” Dodder said. “They form particularly large flocks after the nesting season, which would be now, and they grow larger until winter – and that’s probably when the flocks are the largest.”

The Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society attributes the recent influx to seasonal wintering; as temperatures drop farther north, some flocks are migrating south to warmer climes. But the local population is swelling as well.

“The increased urbanization of the Bay Area is likely to be playing a part in why people are seeing so many crows in the cities lately,” according to Carolyn Knight of the Cupertino-based chapter. “Crows simply do well in highly developed, human-populated areas, while potential competition (jays) and predators (hawks and owls) are less suited to the environment.”

Crows are ominvores and opportunistic eaters known to consume human food and even nestlings of other species, according to Dodder.

“They’ll gather in urban areas like this with proximity to several landfills, urban parks, people picnicking, things like that,” he said. “There’s lots of opportunities for them to find food fairly easily around here in the relative safety of a town.”

After months of absence, a flock, or “murder,” of crows returned to the Mercy-Bush Park neighborhood a few weeks ago. Muriel Sivyer-Lee welcomed them. She’s marveled as they roll acorns into the street so the wheels of automobiles crack open the shells. The birds moisten the meat in her Velarde Street fountain before eating it.

“They are phenomenal,” she said. “I do think they’re smarter than even my stupid dogs. I’m not kidding. They are.”

Sivyer-Lee can attest to crows’ facial recognition capabilities. Her former neighbor once angered a crow by throwing his newspaper at it. He suffered the consequences thereafter.

“That crow was waiting for him on the roof, and he would dive-bomb that man every morning,” she said. “You just don’t know how hysterical this was to watch.”

The self-described “crow fanatic person” has some choice words for the user who referred to himself as the “Crow Lord” and promised to reclaim the birds he had dispatched to the area.

“I was almost going to post, ‘Well, hey, dude, I’m the queen crow here, so don’t come into my territory and mess with my crows.’”

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